Fantasy As My Reality

Until recently, I was really reluctant to commit to a fiction genre. It wasn’t something I was comfortable doing before I’d published anything substantial, which is why this website is very bland and generic-looking and my blog is mostly random musings and the “writing about writing” kind of stuff that I hear now more than ever I should be avoiding. I didn’t want to lock myself into anything or try to establish myself as an expert before I knew that a genre was the right place for me to be.

I knew the sorts of things I enjoyed reading and writing, though. I liked escaping to other worlds, studying magic, and looking at my own world through an allegorical lens. I dabbled in paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and science fiction when I wasn’t writing literary fiction for classes. As for reading, I gravitate toward those same stories, but also really enjoy horror. This usually surprises people: I’m as jumpy and squeamish as they come, squeal about baby animals, haven’t written a dedicated horror story before, and can’t stomach watching horror movies, but give me something spooky to read and I’m all over it.

What also surprises people is the edge that can come out in my fiction. Some of the better and more inspired pieces that I’ve ever written were things that, on some level, pained or frightened me. I loved the ability to stretch my imagination, but it always turned dark. It got to the point where it was something of a joke with people who read my fiction drafts—“Gretchen can’t just write something silly, she has to make it scary and depressing!” My experiences as a young person with a chronic illness probably contributed to this: I existed in a world that was uncomfortable and unfair, so anything I wrote that wasn’t bleak at some point never felt authentic to me. “Write what scares you” is the most valuable writing advice I’ve ever received, and I lean into that whenever I can.

I got into tabletop gaming fairly recently, and it was during my group’s current main campaign of Dungeons & Dragons that I realized how comfortable and at-home I felt telling high fantasy stories. I loved the stakes, the magic, the action, and despite not thinking of myself as a historian I also found myself liking the medieval aesthetic that tabletop fantasy games embrace. Sure, there was a learning curve involved, but this game and its story and characters felt so right. I kept thinking about the world and narrative outside of the game environment, and it ended up being the inspiration for 2017’s NaNoWriMo piece and my first victory since 2014.

But it wouldn’t have been my piece without bringing fear and discomfort into it. It wouldn’t have been mine without looking critically at and deconstructing the tropes inherent to the fantasy genre, often in ways that end up making it darker. It wouldn’t be mine if it wasn’t cynical, but not beyond hope: I can deconstruct tropes, but they can be reconstructed. Things can be made better. Maybe not right away, and not in the way that a reader would expect, but they can get better.

This is why I think I’ve been a darker-leaning fantasy writer this whole time. I need the fear, but also the flights of fancy. I need the horror and dread to feel like I’ve earned the happy ending. I need to be able to plunge into the darkness and, if I can’t bring light down there with me, find a way back out of it. I need characters who are haunted by what they see, feel, and do, but are powerful and brave in ways that I can only imagine. I can’t hide from the world, but I want to bring something beautiful or inspiring into it that can take the edge off and make things ok again, even if it’s only for a little bit. I think I’ll be happy here, and I hope you will be, too, if you plan on sticking around.

As for what this realization means for the website, blog, and future projects, I have so many ideas.

  • I’m currently working on revising my NaNoWriMo 2017 piece, tentatively called The Kingmaker’s War until something better inevitably comes along. This means a lot of reading, writing, editing, and researching, which I plan to keep you posted on.
  • The website needs a new “look.” Like I said, I’m currently working with the most generic of WordPress themes, which doesn’t gel with any kind of fantasy subgenre at all. I’ll be doing a lot of thinking about aesthetics and getting some better pictures of myself for my online presence. In the meantime, you’ll have to pardon my dust, because I’m sure I’m going to break something in the process. If I need to take down the website for a bit to make this happen, I’ll try to give some advance notice through my social media channels.
  • You’ll notice a shift in what I write about on the blog and how often it updates. Up until now, I’d been doing a lot of writing about writing. This was mostly because I didn’t have any real direction, and it led to long and unexpected hiatuses because I was trying to think of things to write and getting frustrated with myself in the process. The manuscript needed to come first. Now that I have a genre I can settle into, I have something definite that I can write about—namely, the stuff that I’m researching or working on. Expect more musings on genre stuff from this point forward as well as write-ups on research and announcements that could be relevant to your interests, should they arise. This will help me keep on track with writing and revising my manuscript as well as maintaining the blog. I’m planning on monthly blog updates at this time, and keeping the updates to Wednesdays.
  • I’m going to start working on an email newsletter. It’s one of those writer things that I really should have started doing the moment I put a website on the internet, but I never got around to doing because I had no idea what to write in one that I wasn’t already putting on the blog. A writing conference I listened to recently gave me the idea to make the newsletter less about news and more about connecting with readers, which I think is the direction I’m going to take with it once I get that rolling. Such a thing would look like the blog you’re used to seeing, but in your inbox, where the blog will be dedicated to more overtly manuscript-related things. I’m not sure how often I would send a newsletter out, but I’ll avoid being spasm-tastic. If there’s anything you can think of that you’d want to see in a newsletter (or anything that would entice you to subscribe to one), drop a comment below, send me something through my contact form, or get in touch through a social media site and I’ll see what I can do.

I’m nervous, inspired, and excited. I finally feel like I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. You’ll have to bear with me while I go through the “growing pains” phase of figuring everything out, but I’d like to think we’ll all be a little better off once everything’s done.

See you on the other side.


Learning to Say “It’s Not for Me—But It’s Not Bad”

I’m never more aware of the sunk cost fallacy than when I’m reading a book that just isn’t for me. Unless a book is really, truly, unreadably awful, I’ll probably see it through until the end once I’ve picked it up. It’s a behavior that baffles my husband, who doesn’t understand why I don’t give up something that I’m not 100% into so that I can move on to things that I’ll enjoy.

Part of it is my awareness that I do look through a more critical lens when it comes to storytelling, as anyone that’s ever tried to watch a movie or show with me in the room can attest. I know that I have a hard time turning the genre-savvy and craft-conscious part of my brain off even when I’m reading for pleasure, so I just don’t think it’s fair to judge whether or not a book is “good” by whether or not it hits some arbitrary number of checkmarks in my mental list of tropes, rules, and other literary odds and ends.

Part of it is also that, while every publication experience is unique, I also write. I know what goes into crafting a story, and while I’m not a novelist at this time, I’m familiar enough with the publishing process to know how long and grueling it can be. Every book probably has a celebration, even a small one, behind it, and I think that they deserve my attention as a reader for getting this far and doing all of the work that they did, including getting me to pick up the book in the first place.

This is why, in my 2018 book reviews, I’m going to strive to say “It’s not for me” instead of variations of “This is bad” or “I didn’t like it.”

As in all things, there are exceptions. If something about a novel is problematic, absolutely call attention to it (something that I also hope to become better about in the future). But for the books that just didn’t grab you or that feel done to death? Consider that it won’t be that way for everyone.

For instance, not too long ago I finished reading The Novice by Taran Matharu. It was a “three out of five stars” on Goodreads for me, which is my “I wanted to love it, but it just didn’t quite get there” rating. Matharu clearly has a lot of imagination and explored a number of ideas with regards to fantasy races and society that felt fresh to me, and his story of getting agent representation and a book deal in a non-traditional way is interesting and even inspiring, but I wouldn’t peg The Novice as one of my favorite books or even Matharu as a favorite author. A younger version of me would have probably adored the book and eagerly looked for more of Matharu’s work, but it wasn’t for adult me. It wasn’t bad; it was just for a different person.

Some of the lower ratings on Goodreads refer to the novel and its characters as a collection of clichés. The poor, good-hearted orphan that’s unjustifiably bullied discovers magical powers and friends. Elves are graceful, dwarves are industrious, and humans fall somewhere in the middle. His Dark Materials characters get shipped off to Hogwarts from Harry Potter, compete in The Hunger Games, and then get shipped off to the front lines of The Lord of the Rings. Some readers couldn’t even finish the book because it was too clichéd for them.

I see where these reviewers are coming from with regards to familiarity. I could see the influences pretty clearly (although Matharu says that His Dark Materials wasn’t part of the inspiration for The Novice), and part of why I didn’t fall in love with the novel is because it felt so familiar to me. What doesn’t seem to be considered, at least in the context of these reviews, is that it’s not going to be as familiar to someone who hasn’t read nearly as much as they have, and that it’s for that person.

The Novice is for the younger version of me that would have fantasized about getting my own magical pet and powers and going off to a school to learn how to use both alongside powerful, lifelong friends. It’s for the kid that doesn’t think they like books but picks this one up once they realize it’s like their favorite video game and then goes on to read more. It’s for the kid who’s probably a little too young to get nose-deep into Tolkien, but will probably end up there once they fall in love with the genre. It’s for readers that loved A Darker Shade of Magic (V.E. Schwab) and Eragon (Christopher Paolini), which are similarly fantastic and imaginative but can tick the “cliché” boxes of more critical readers. It’s for the marginalized kids who (especially in fantasy, it being historically quite white, male, and heteronormative) might not have seen someone who looks like them on a book jacket and because of it get inspired to tell stories of their own someday.

Nothing is for everyone, and this is especially true of books. Trying to write something that appeals to literally everyone is impossible—conventional wisdom says that you’re not even supposed to market a book that way, so how can you expect to write one like that? Unless there’s a genuine problem with the book or its message, if you don’t like it, ask yourself why rather than just calling it “bad”—and maybe read a review from a fan who loved it.

I’m Back! And I Have News!

Dear readers, it’s been ages. I know that. 2017 has been a really tough year to be a creative person, but I’ll spare you the details on that front. I’m getting back into blogging after a long and unintentional hiatus and figured that this announcement would be a good way to kick things off again.

Backlog’s front cover.

Backlog, a brand-new magazine for writers, people in the publishing industry, and other creative minds, is making its debut on November 22nd of this year, and I’m really excited to say that I was one of the contributors. I’ve seen the mockup of the final product and can assure you that it’s gorgeous: Sierra Godfrey has done an amazing job designing it and getting everything and everyone organized.

We all know how pressed for time creative people are, so Backlog is filled with short but beautiful and interesting things. It’s the perfect thing to read while taking a break with a cup of coffee or tea. I wrote about what I’ve gotten from NaNoWriMo in the five years that I’ve been a participant: this will be part of the “Writers on Writing” category, where contributors talk about the craft, journey, and lessons of writing. The categories in the first issue are as follows:

  • Writers on Writing
  • Agents on Agenting
  • Editors on Editing
  • Interesting Things Being Interesting
  • Slow Things Being Slow
A peek at what my contribution will look like.

Right now, the plan is to publish Backlog six times a year. The magazine is digital for now and is available for purchase directly on the website or for download in the Kindle Store. For $3.99—the price of a cup of coffee—you’ll get quality writing and insight into what makes those of us in the writing, publishing, and other creative industries tick. There’s a lot to love already, and there will be more to love in the future when you subscribe, because the second issue is already being planned.

I hope you’ll join us on this really exciting journey. Either way, I’ll see you in the not-too-distant future for more blog posts. I can’t guarantee that I’ll post weekly or even biweekly, but I don’t plan on another long-term, unexpected disappearance. I like talking about what I do a little too much for that, and with any luck, you enjoy listening to what I have to say.

“You People Are Smarter Than Me!” and Other Lessons from Running an RPG

I have a talent for jumping out of frying pans and into fires. Unsurprisingly, this means that I end up in over my head a lot—joining too many organizations because I have more passion than reason, taking on more projects than I can manage despite it being reasonable in theory, or taking on a position that I meet the qualifications for on paper but wasn’t prepared to handle.

This is how I ended up being the game master for a Lovecraft-inspired tabletop role-playing game. It was classic Gretchen, really: “Tabletop games are kind of neat, and I want to try this one out. It’s new to everyone, especially me, so I should be in charge of it. There’s no way this can go wrong.”

Long story short, there were a lot of ways that it went wrong in the space of two sessions, at least from a writing standpoint. Chief among them were two very specific things:

  1. Engineers are meticulous, crafty, and sometimes downright scary people; and
  2. I seriously underestimated the power of friendship.

I understand why these two factors gave me the biggest problems. I write fiction, blog posts, and copy for the most part: I usually have longer than seven days to research, write, and revise something. I have fairly hard and fast rules that don’t arbitrarily change on the fly, even when I’m writing fiction that deviates from reality in significant ways. In pieces that have characters, I tend to give them the freedom to do what they need to but reserve the right to prod them in the direction of the plot I’d planned without too much resistance. Finally, once it’s done, it’s done: with very few exceptions, writing something down makes it final.

It turns out that real people don’t behave the way that I expect fictional characters to on any of those fronts. Weird.

For some background information on what’s going on story-wise, it turns out that the events in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction are based, at least in part, on experiences he had in life. An earthquake with an epicenter of 47°9’S 126°43’W (Lovecraft fans should recognize exactly what those coordinates point to) ends up destroying a few ships and some infrastructure on Pacific coasts, and after that happens creative and sensitive people begin experiencing literally and figuratively fishy nightmares. People go missing, reveal themselves as adherents of a new religious movement, get assaulted on the street, experience breaks from reality, and otherwise have their day-to-day lives dramatically altered. Our heroes, who are self-insert fiction versions of themselves in this world, experienced various forms of this weirdness that culminated in coming together for the first time to meet at our gaming table. After discussing and addressing everything strange going on in our lives in-universe, one of the group’s members discovers a video of something on the coast of California. Watching the video causes in-universe me to collapse from an apparent heart attack, and the plot took us to the hospital, where my plans proceeded to unravel in truly spectacular ways.

I’m not complaining: I love my players to bits, am a fan of what they did, and needed all the help I could get on my first proverbial rodeo. I fully expected to improvise and change course on the fly and wasn’t at all surprised that I needed to. I also knew that, in a game so grounded in reality, the historian, theater artist, neuroscientist, and three engineers I sit with once a week would have dramatically different knowledge bases from each other and from me, and that I would need to have at least loose answers to all of their questions. I can’t possibly become an expert on something that might not even come up, so I foolishly thought that going with the cursory level of knowledge I rely on to coast through rough drafts of my own writing would be sufficient.

It’s not like we were going to stick around the hospital for that long, anyway. One of the things that the game master’s guide in the book recommends is that the GM takes out their in-universe counterpart as soon as possible: this is partly to establish that the apocalypse is playing for keeps and partly so the GM isn’t playing both sides of the field or managing any more characters than they have to. I wanted to be creepy but not depressing, and I thought a suspenseful slow burn was appropriate for a Lovecraft-flavored apocalypse, so I decided that outright killing my fictional counterpart would be too much for the first session. Maybe, just maybe, knocking me into a coma would be enough. My players tend to skew pretty pragmatic (I thought), so if the hospital became a dangerous place, they’d have to make a choice between their lives and mine and ultimately sacrifice me for the good of them all; and if the hospital remained a safe place, they’d have to leave eventually, and there would be no reason beyond sentimentality to drag a comatose but otherwise ordinary writer with them on their apocalypse adventure. If nothing else, the people that are familiar with RPGs would recognize what I was doing and go along with it to get the plot moving, even if they wouldn’t in real life.

This was a good plan. It was sure to work. I had obviously taken everything into account.

I knew I was in trouble when it turned out that one of my players is also a certified EMT.

…And that the group’s response to a dangerous situation that they don’t know the details of is not to escape from the danger, but to immediately barricade themselves into the ICU and start finding alternative uses for brooms, beds, and television sets.

…And that the engineers can make weapons and explosives out of literally anything (and while they gleefully volunteered the specifics, I’m not telling you).

…And that I would be at the table Googling objects that could be used to create a timer for a fuse, because I hadn’t quite cemented my place on any watch lists yet and because the dice said that I had to.

…And that rather than making the tough choice to leave fictional me in my seriously compromised condition in order to save themselves, they pulled out my IV, used the fluid bag as yet another bomb component, carried my unconscious body through probably about a mile of underground access tunnels, and ultimately took me to one of their houses, where I laid unconscious in bed while they decided that events had finally gotten bad enough to start drinking.

…And that they’re going to keep every NPC that they come across, including me, my husband, my improvised hospital roommate, and that creepy detective that I was positive they were going to leave behind because no one actually liked him or thought he had useful information.

So what have I learned from this experience?

That I need to let go. I’m something of a control freak when I write, and although it’s getting better precisely because of RPGs I still expected to have issues with that in the inherently improvisational and collaborative nature of what we were doing. Things don’t have to go exactly how I want them to, and, in fact, they improve with outside contributions.

That I need to know my audience. The nature of the game we’re playing is interesting in that we’re learning perhaps more than we’d ever care to about each other because of the choice to play more realistically. That’s not what I mean, though. If I’m going to ground my piece in reality, I’m going to have the scientifically-inclined thinking about everything and picking it apart. If I’m going to weave bits of Lovecraftian fiction into my plot, the guy that has every word of the canon committed to memory is going to call me on deviations. RPGs don’t make research easy, but for everything else, I need to have more than half a clue what I’m talking about.

That I have fans. I’m still trying to get used to this idea that people like me. I’m not a character in much of anything that I write these days, but when I was, I had no problem with taking myself out of the action to let other people shine. When I was feeling more self-confident, it was because I understood sacrifices of that nature to be heroic; when I was feeling more down on myself, it was because I genuinely believed I was useless and that other people believed that of me as well. With regards to being a fan of my writing, it’s hard to imagine that anything you create isn’t just going into a void where no one sees it or cares, no matter how many followers or compliments you get.

I can’t speak to how the group feels about the way I’m handling the adventure so far, and I don’t know that I would believe them if they told me they were having a great time, anyway.  But I know that they’re supportive people to the point where, at least in theory, they value my life more than they fear threats to theirs. It’s kind of heartwarming to know that my friends would do everything from argue with nurses about MRIs to literally kidnap me from the hospital if they thought it meant I would be safe, no matter how much dead weight I am to them. Hypothetical life-or-death situations probably don’t translate well to supporting my career goals, but support is support.

That I need to get started on my next session. Because they actually have a list of objectives they hope to accomplish, and I think it’s about time to throw some combat at them. I’m such a good friend.

How to Write an Homage

I’ve been reading a lot of stories written or inspired by one Howard Philips Lovecraft lately. It was only halfway intentional on my part: some of the genres I enjoy owe a lot to his contributions, so while I might not actively seek out Lovecraft-inspired fiction it happens to exist on the shelves where I look for pleasure reading, and I’ll pick up nearly anything with an interesting premise. The other part of it is that I’m going to be running a tabletop game campaign that explicitly pits the players against forces from The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, so I’ve been doing research on what kinds of things to throw at my players (spoiler alert: lots and lots of Deep Ones) and how to execute the plot.

The thing about Lovecraft is that he’s an extremely problematic writer. He’s infamous in literary circles for being racist and xenophobic in ways that go beyond being a product of his time, namely in that his views were more intense than those of the general population and never changed even when society around him did. While his fans might argue that his views pale in comparison to the worlds he builds, I’m not of that school of thought: when one of a writer’s recurring themes is the consequences of “tainted blood” on a character’s life that makes him less than the white English man that he believed himself to be, you can’t separate his views on race from the philosophy of the worlds in which his fiction exists.

This is why it’s so difficult to find a high-quality adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s work. Modern writers that are sensitive to the controversy surrounding Lovecraft, at least in my experience, either apologize for it so obviously that they pull you out of the story to present you with short essays on the topic; or, like the otherworldly creatures Lovecraft writes that are too horrible to describe in words, they completely ignore it and hope you won’t ask questions. Lovecraft-inspired pieces tend to only look at Call of Cthulhu and therefore feature a lot of tentacles, creepy cultists, insane people, and… that’s it. There’s not a whole lot to Lovecraft if you ignore the themes that make him so uncomfortable for modern readers.

Sure, tentacles are viscerally unsettling, cults are always in style, and we can’t get over stigmatizing people with mental illnesses even though we should, but without any of Lovecraft’s common themes the derivative works are so shallow. Creatures having influence over humanity can be done creepily and well, but it becomes horrifying in a different, uncomfortable way when you remember that the original author literally thought of other humans as “beasts” simply for not being white and English. Having something scandalous in your background might make an interesting twist, but having the “scandal” be a different race and/or ethnicity is a massive problem, not to mention outdated. It’s horrifying to think of life being threatened by forces that we can’t understand, but Lovecraft’s apocalypses were flavored with a fear of social and scientific progress that would allow “inferior” groups of people to upset the status quo.

So what’s a fan of Cthulhu that wants to write a Lovecraft-inspired novel do to? Ignoring the bad things about the man makes the work shallow, but outright embracing them is bad for a number of reasons. How are you supposed to write a quality derivative work?

You could do what Matt Ruff did in his novel Lovecraft Country. I mentioned it on the blog not too long ago, but I do want to talk more about how the novel works as homage.

I have yet to see a tribute to another writer that does what Ruff did for Lovecraft. He demonstrates an awareness of Lovecraft’s common themes, even the unsavory ones, that makes it very clear that he reads and loves the work: fear of “others,” inherited “impurities,” the dangers of religion and science, and things man wasn’t meant to know or comprehend are all present and accounted for. However, he acknowledges that despite the good that Lovecraft has to offer, there are still flaws, and while there’s no use in hiding from them a modern writer can do better.

He does this by setting the events of the story in the Jim Crow United States and featuring black protagonists. This allows him to address and deconstruct the themes from more than one front: he melds the racist mindset of the U.S. at that time with themes and elements from Lovecraft in order to tell the story about his characters fighting against threatening “others.” The big difference is that the narrative is turned on its head, featuring characters that Lovecraft himself would have reviled in sympathetic and heroic roles. It was immaculately put together, serves as one of the most satisfying “updates” of Lovecraft I’ve seen to date, and is arguably far more interesting than the original because the threats are way more human than alien (there is a pretty heavy supernatural bent to the plot, but the actual terror and horror were closer to home).

It’s a great novel that I recommend for American history buffs with a taste for weird and horror fiction. I also think it’s a good one for writers to pick up to see what homage can and should do. You can’t accurately call something a tribute if it’s a regurgitation or heavy edit of the source material: no matter what influences it has, it’s still your work and your voice. Imitation might have a reputation for being flattering, but a nearly direct copy is just that: it’s a copy. A tribute needs to create something new and different from the thing that it loves. Look at the themes through a different lens, pick them apart, and give them back in new, different, and exciting ways.

When you remodel your living room, you don’t just paint over that weird spot on the wall, vacuum, and move the furniture a few feet: you knock down a wall to open the place up a bit, get new furniture, and paint the walls a totally different color. The function of the room has not changed, and while it might be dusty and difficult to get there it will be a net improvement overall. You can stay faithful to the original thing that you loved, whether it was the parties you threw in your living room or the author that influenced you to become the writer you are today, but it can’t really be a different thing until you take the steps to make it really, truly yours.

On Writing and Representation

The publishing world has been talking a lot about representation and diversity recently. It’s a movement that I’m all for: we need more #OwnVoices authors producing content and a greater variety of characters in our stories. This is the perfect time for change in the industry, and every day I see literary agents on Twitter seeking these stories and authors as well as hosting conversations about who is sitting behind the desks at publishing houses. It’s not just a matter of appearing in more stories, though: it’s about having a variety of people being able to do more in fiction.

Consider what I remember from most of the fiction I read, watched, or played as a kid:

  • Boys got to be heroes. Girls were there to be annoying sisters, cootie vectors, sidekicks, damsels to rescue, or prizes to win. Sometimes the girl character could be smarter than the boys, but the boys still did cooler things. I was never explicitly told that girls couldn’t be heroes, but the default for hero was “boy.”
  • Books with black and brown faces on the covers were historical stories about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Those that weren’t were about inner-city gang violence. Black and brown faces just weren’t attached to simple adventure stories: their stories were always grounded in reality and bittersweet if not outright painful. I noticed that these were the books that won awards, but also that they were sad or had content that was often considered too mature for me. As a result, most of the characters I read about, male or female, were white.
  • Boys were boys, girls were girls, and boys and girls liked each other and got married. Even tomboys would get girly makeovers so that boys would like them. Again, this isn’t something that was actively enforced in my home life, but I did internalize a lot of it from the media I consumed as well as my peers, who grew up in the same fairly conservative area that I did. There wasn’t a lot of “controversial” media available in my public schools, so I didn’t read many books with LGBTQIA protagonists when I was young: when I see these characters now, they’re either in the background of someone else’s story or their entire narrative arc is a coming-out story grounded in reality.

I’m not saying that these kinds of stories aren’t important or good, because they are. I’m also not saying that I never experienced fiction to the contrary or that my family didn’t try to help me open my mind to differences, because they did. I’m just saying that, when I was younger, there wasn’t much variety in who I read about or the stories that were told, and there was very little room to ask questions or broaden my horizons. The media we consume as children is one of the first places that we learn about people who are different from us, and it shapes how visible certain communities are and how they’re perceived: it’s important to get that kind of education started early.

Going away to college was a shock for me in more ways than one. I hate change as it is, but I was away from the area I grew up in for the first time. While I realized it on a conceptual level, it didn’t really hit me that people who had experiences outside of my own existed. I had a lot of learning to do. I’m far from perfect and still as privileged as ever, but I’d like to think that my mind opened up some.

In fact, my mind opened enough that after I graduated, I questioned the “default” that I had settled into and was content with.

About two years ago, I realized that I’m asexual. Before we go any further with this, no, you’re not going to get details about my bedroom life: most of you are strangers, and besides, my mother reads my posts. My experiences are my own and do not reflect some master “asexual experience,” although my self-discovery was prompted by reading and recognizing myself in the stories of others. I do not consider myself to be a representative of the asexual community, let alone the LGBTQIA community at large. While I try to be an ally, I am not a fair judge of my impact: that title is for someone in the community to bestow on me, not something that I can claim for myself.

I won’t pretend that my journey was full of pain or angst. In fact, I spent most of that time completely oblivious, which not everyone gets the luxury of being. What’s more is that I’m what’s called heteroromantic, meaning that I’m what I’ve been known to call “functionally straight”: I like men, but would shrug and walk away if one was naked and willing in front of me. More accurately, I would assume that I’d walked in on someone else’s private affair, shield my eyes, shout something along the lines of “OH GOD, I’M SORRY!” and not be able to live the experience down for the next decade.

My experience was supported by the “girls like boys” plots of my childhood, which is part of the reason that I literally didn’t realize I wasn’t technically straight until after I was out of school. Most of my crushes were genuine (Rupert Grint, I’m sorry, but I arbitrarily picked you because everyone else had claimed Daniel Radcliffe and I wanted to be a part of playground conversations about our future Harry Potter husbands) and on masculine people, but in hindsight, I seemed to experience them differently than the majority of straight girls. Where I saw them talk about guys being “hot” (I still have no idea what that means, by the way) and wanting to have their way with them under stairwells, in janitor’s closets, or in auxiliary gymnasiums, I experienced boys as being “cute,” was drawn to their personalities, and wanted to hold hands, have conversations, and watch movies with them, possibly with cuddling if we were serious. The idea of anything beyond kissing seemed gross in a “cooties” kind of way, which made perfect sense when I was a kid. However, the feeling persisted into my teenage years and adulthood: I didn’t really talk about it, and it wasn’t addressed as being abnormal, so I went with it.

Part of this was the area I grew up in. It was conservative enough that gay and transgender people just didn’t exist: while a few people in my social circles came out as I was getting to the end of high school, and I was (and am!) perfectly fine with it, I wasn’t aware that transgender was something you could even be until after I spent a year or two at college. Our district’s sex ed program was abstinence-only to the point where I didn’t know what a condom was, let alone what one looked like or how to use it, until I was a freshman in college. In fact, the only things I remember from that class were that sex was how you got pregnant and got STDs (but I never saw a slide show with horrifying pictures) and a demonstration of chewed Oreos spit into cups of water that was supposed to be a metaphor for having multiple sexual partners. Intercourse was a simple matter of “don’t do it unless it’s with your opposite-sex spouse,” and I didn’t question it because I never felt the urge to experiment. In fact, and regrettably, I took my lack of desire for sexual contact as evidence that I was somehow morally and even intellectually superior to my peers. I know, that’s very mature of teenage me, but what other conclusion was I supposed to jump to? People knew about the consequences of sex and still did it. Shouldn’t they know better? I did.

Not even encounters with other asexual people helped me figure it out. One boy I developed a crush on turned me down (far more gracefully than any man before or since, for what it’s worth) by citing asexuality as his orientation. At the time, I conflated asexuality with aromanticism, which, again, didn’t line up with my experience: I wasn’t interested in sex, either, but I was interested in relationships. My friend and eventual college roommate was also asexual and, for the most part, uninterested in relationships. It wasn’t until later my senior year when she started casually seeing someone that it occurred to me that maybe sex and romance were different (yes, I know now that orientations can be fluid, but baby steps, people).

With the chunk of time I had after college was over, I started my serious reading and soul-searching. I toyed with the labels “demisexual” and “gray-ace” to continue holding onto the illusion that I was “normal,” but ultimately gave them up with enough reading. I came out as asexual to my then-fiancé, who was fine with it (reader, I married him); a few months later, I came out to my Facebook friends; and finally, I came out to my immediate family on Coming Out Day 2015 (despite knowing I would be supported, this was still the most challenging part).

So what does all of this have to do with representation? Again, I stress that I have a lot of privilege: I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, and “straight-passing” with a white, cisgender, able-bodied, financially secure, masculine partner. In fact, I’m privileged in ways that I personally feel disqualify me from being considered an underrepresented voice, and I’m not here to claim that I should be considered one (which is why I haven’t tried to sell myself as an “asexual author”). The thing was that I wasn’t aware of any of these facets of myself until I broadened my horizons after high school: I didn’t see myself, so I just didn’t know.

Seeing a variety of people in the media you consume can help you find yourself among them, reassure you that your normal is valid, and allow you to feel less alone, especially if you’re a child or young adult that’s starting to make realizations about yourself that make you feel alone. Again, I stress that my life wasn’t full of pain because I didn’t know about my asexuality, and with very few exceptions I don’t think my cluelessness would have hurt anyone I’d never found out. But for someone who needs to see themselves to make sense of their place in the world, representation is everything.

But it’s not just about being there. It’s about making sure that the stories that people get aren’t just reinforcing what they already know, using stereotypes, or making them into two-dimensional plot devices. Everyone can go on adventures; everyone can get broken hearts; everyone can save the world; and, above all else, everyone is the protagonist in their own life story. Your identity plays a big part in how you interact with the world and the things that happen to you, but there’s more to you than that.

Give me more stories like Welcome to Night Vale, which canonically and famously has a gay relationship (with a Latino partner portrayed by Dylan Marron, to boot) but is about this weird and often terrifying little town somewhere in the desert and the community radio station keeping them informed.

I want another Lovecraft Country, which turns the tropes and themes of a racist and xenophobic author on their heads and acknowledges the reality of the Jim Crow social climate while still being a phenomenally-crafted story with excellent characters.

You already know that I love The Girl with Ghost Eyes, but it deserves mentioning again. Look at history and culture, stay faithful to it, and weave it into one of the most exhilarating fantasy stories I’ve ever experienced.

Think you can’t change up genre fiction? Think again. Put someone different at the helm. Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell pleasantly surprised me by featuring (stay with me, please) a zombie detective protagonist whose condition is treated in-universe as a debilitating chronic illness. Just giving what would otherwise be a fairly typical noir detective character, complete with guns, a substance abuse problem, and an antisocial personality a condition like that was refreshing, and I want more characters like him out there in genre fiction, where they’re accessible to everyone who needs to see them.

There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to representation in characters and authors (including on the above list, regrettably). But there’s so much potential for new stories and new voices retelling old stories in a new way. We as readers can only benefit from it, and we as authors can do so much good by letting these voices be heard. As for me, I’ll try my best to help.

Do you have any recommendations for books or authors from underrepresented communities? Let’s hear about them!


An Open Letter to Writers Making Resolutions


Dear Writer,


I know you. Maybe not personally, or even in passing, but I know the kind of person you are. We’re not that different, really.

Last year, you made a resolution—or, if not one resolution, a series of smaller promises working toward an end goal. Your goal was a noble one—produce more work, start a blog, get paid, finally finish something—and you were going to be serious about it. You printed it out and taped it above the space where you do your writing. You posted about it on social media to the delight of your followers. You told your friends and family because you knew they would “keep me accountable.” You worked as hard as you could.

But then you slipped. You might know exactly when it happened, or you might have woken up one morning and realized how far you had strayed from your goals. It might have hit you out of the clear blue, or you might not have realized it until that one relative asked you how the novel was coming over hors d’oeuvres at a holiday party. You put on a brave face, laughed about how “everyone breaks their resolutions” and that there’s always next year, but still felt that sinking, guilty feeling of believing that you’d failed.

Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do. If I really love writing, I should have no problem writing 500 words a day. I should be able to put out two blog posts a week. Everything I read about being a good writer says that children/day jobs/chores/hobbies/sleeping aren’t excuses, but is it really possible to balance that time?

I’m not in a position where I can give you advice. Once again, at the end of last year, I made a writing-related resolution that I tried and failed to keep. No amount of “It’s ok, everyone breaks resolutions” will ever sound sincere or even true to me, which means that I’m also not in a position where I can tell you that it’s ok without sounding like I’m regurgitating empty platitudes or making excuses for you.

In true Gretchen fashion, though, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

Writing resolutions seem to revolve around fear and conquering it. Write what scares you. Lean into fear. Show off your scars. Reveal yourself, naked and bleeding, on the page. While “write what scares you” is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received, maybe this isn’t realistic for you. Maybe you’ve been told that your story is important, that you need to get it out there, that you have the responsibility or the obligation to put your experience on the page and share it with a world that needs to hear it… but you’re not ready. It’s too raw. You’re too close. It wouldn’t be fear as much as it would be utter, gut-wrenching terror that keeps you awake at night. Writing is your way to escape your fear, and you want it to stay safe for you, at least for now. Honesty has to work both ways: write true works for the world, but be truthful to yourself about whether or not you’re ready.

Write when you don’t feel like it? A good tip for procrastinators or those people who insist that they’ll write a novel someday without making any real moves. Sitting down and actually getting words on the page is important: there’s a time for thinking, researching, listening, and talking, and there’s a time for actually doing the dirty work. There’s a lot to be said for discipline and not making excuses, but there’s also a lot to be said for simply not being able to. Chronic illnesses, stressful day jobs, searching for day jobs, grief, and a number of other life factors can leave you trying to choose between writing and physically, mentally, and/or emotionally surviving until tomorrow, and that’s ok. Not everyone can do everything all the time. Take care of yourself first.

Get published this year? You have next to no control over that in traditional publishing, which by necessity relies on other people. Even if you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s still a lot that’s outside of your control. You don’t know what the market is going to do, how readers are going to react, whether or not another writer is putting out something similar at the time, or any of a number of other things. It’s important to get out there, but doing it at the right time is just as important. It will take more than 365 days to get there, and the only thing you’re going to feel is doubt when you don’t achieve something that you’ve done close to if not literally everything that you can about. It’s easier than ever to get out there, but it’s also much easier to really mess up. If you’re going to stress about publishing, worry more about getting it right than just getting it done as soon as possible.

There are countless other tips and writer’s resolution lists out there. They all come back to this idea that borders on cognitive dissonance: there’s no easy or quick route to being a successful writer, but these resolutions are almost wholly about doing more now to get there quicker and easier.

Time is everything in our business. I think, on some level, we all know that, but it’s good to actually say it. Writing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Publishing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Humans do not operate in any way except symbolically on arbitrary 365-day periods. Trying to set a goal based on another person’s definition of success will, if it’s not authentic to you, just bring you broken promises and guilt for no good reason. If you’re someone who works well with those kinds of goals, more power to you. For those of us that see what other people are planning and doubt our abilities, though, I don’t know that punishing ourselves for perceived failures on a near-annual basis is going to help.

That said, I do have something of a resolution for you. Kind of funny, isn’t it, having just gotten done saying that other people don’t know you well enough to make resolutions for you? You can take it or leave it, but at least look at it.

Call yourself a writer, would you? None of this “aspiring writer” stuff. If you have ever put words to a page for the sheer joy of telling a story, you are a writer. If you’ve written, even if you missed a day or didn’t hit your planned word count, you are a writer. If you’ve written something, even if it’s never seen the light of day, you are a writer. If you’ve written but haven’t gotten paid for it, you are a writer. If you’re doing anything more about your craft than daydreaming, then you are a writer.

I’m not sure if it comes as a surprise, but it took me a while to publicly say this and a seemingly disproportionate amount of courage. Somehow, I didn’t feel like a writer without some kind of external validation. But taking that step toward making it true for myself was a big turning point in my career, and I think it could help you, too.

It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goals are, how much you’ve written today, or what your process looks like. The only resolution that any of us, myself included, need to make is to embrace what we do, however we do it. We have an entire year ahead of us: let’s make our writing count, instead of counting the number of things we need in order to “succeed.”

Happy New Year!


With love,